[-empyre-] debt and art

Timothy Conway Murray tcm1 at cornell.edu
Thu Nov 29 08:56:54 EST 2012

Hi, everyone,

I want to join Renate in thanking everyone for such a lively discussion this month, which I expect given this week's momentum that we might want to extend beyond the end of November, closer into the holiday season.  But more on that later in the week.

For my part, I've found myself thinking about the correlation of the month's earlier emphasis on debt to contemporary art practice vis à vis the kinds of structural issues of the imbalance of trade that is threatening both education and not-for-profit cultural exchange.  To illustrate the kinds of issues I have mind, I'd like briefly to juxtapose two installation art projects on economic trade, one currently ongoing is Martha Rosler's Garage Sale at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and another is the 1996 project, "Exchange," launched by the Canadian artist, Nancy Nesbitt.

The contrast between these two projects couldn't be starker.  Rosler's inhabits the massive atrium space at the core of the MOMA building which is filled with her items for sale in a garage sale.  As part of the experience she (apparently, since I have visited this piece, which has received very heavy coverage from media like The New York times) haggles with visitors over items, while surrounding them with her audio essay on the economic and cultural complexities of the suburban yard sale (a form of attracting income in troubled times, if the reports provided by reviews are at all accurate).

In contrast to this installation that adopts while critiquing the museum-style sale of art in the museum-gallery nexus, Nesbitt capitalized on the archival promise of new media interfaces to label all of her personal items with rfid tags. She then loaded them onto a truck for three months of trade as she drove her rig throughout Canada, the US, and along the Mexican border.  When visitors traded their items for Nancy's, she recorded their account of their items and the items' affective relation to the trader.  The overall conceit of this very energetic and successful intervention, which Renate and I hosted here in Ithaca, New York, was to provide a critical reflection on the recent "North American Free Trade Agreement" while highlighting the agreement's ban on "free trade" (as opposed to purchase).  Indeed, Nancy had difficulty getting permission to drive her semi-truck across the US-Canada border because she wasn't bringing items for sale but only for "free trade."

I think the contrast between these pieces speaks almost for itself. Although Rosler certainly deserves respect for the critical perspective that has driven her work over her career (her initial yard sale in San Diego years ago included taboo items such as her diaphragm, pornography, etc.), her MOMA project, sponsored and valued by an institution for which the problematics of 'debt' seems not to be much of an issue, stands in sharp contrast to Nesbitt's free trading of her most cherished possessions and her encouragement of her participants to trade their cherished items in turn.  Here debt becomes translated into an indebtedness to narrative, personal, and social exchange that fell outside of the speculation-profit-debt nexus of the established art market. Nesbitt also maintained a website, which seems no longer online, of the narrative archives that accompanied her newly acquired item.  She also tracked, via rfid, the migration of her own items in the different geopolitical nexus of personal value and artistic expression across North America.

Perhaps you'll share my fascination with such contrasting artistic approaches to the cultures of personal exchange and sale.



Director, Society for the Humanities
Curator, Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
A. D. White House
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York. 14853

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